I hear boob orbs are going to be all the rage this summer.
Precious few entries in the role playing canon are as revered as Nihon Falcom’s Ys I and II. Originally released for NEC PC-8801 computer systems in 1987 and 1988, respectively, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter kicked off a series that’s still going strong and have been ported and remade enough times to give the makers of Doom and Street Fighter II pause.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why. The early Ys titles were a major step up from previous Japanese computer action RPGs. Their thrilling combat and stunning presentation made them must-plays for anyone gaming on one of these platforms. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, given that Ys was the creation of Masaya Hashimoto and Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, who would end up leaving Nihon Falcom in the wake of the franchise’s runaway success to make some of my favorite Super Nintendo games under the Quintet banner.
According to its creators, Ys I and II were initially designed as a single game. This conjoined 1989 remake of the two from Hudson Soft is thus less a compilation and more an enhanced restoration. Hudson’s Ys Book I & II is also historically important in its own right, being the second RPG published on CD (after their Tengai Makyo: Ziria) and the first to be given a North American release in 1990. For many players in both regions, it would have served as an introduction to recorded music and voiced cutscenes in video games. That’s bound to leave an impression.
Ys Book I & II focuses on Adol Christin, a wandering swordsman looking the solve the mystery of the fabled lost kingdom of Ys. Interestingly, Ys (pronounced “ease”) is a real place. Or a real mythic place, anyway. It’s supposedly an Atlantis-like sunken city somewhere off the coast of France. Like its Gallic counterpart, Adol’s Ys was a peaceful, prosperous land until a sudden catastrophe caused it to vanish from the world at large. Nothing a dozen hours of fetch questing and monster slaying can’t fix!
The storytelling here can come off a tad threadbare to those more accustomed to post-’80 RPGs. Sure, discovering the fate of Ys and its people should be enough of a hook to get you going and there are a couple of effective twists along the way. Don’t expect much in the way of characterization, though. Adol is the very model of a silent protagonist and his villains are “evil for evil’s sake” types mostly content to wait patiently at home until it’s their turn to eat sword. Hudson Soft was clearly banking on the bleeding edge CD soundtrack and anime cinematics to lend some gravitas to this material. Fortunately, it worked.
The impact of the audio in particular can’t be overstated. Ryo Yonemitsu’s soaring arrangements of tracks composed by Yuzo Koshiro, Mieko Ishikawa, and Hideya Nagata are strong contenders for the finest music heard in any game up to this point. They’re about 50% serene, atmosphere pieces you’d expect from a fantasy game and 50% energetic ’80s synth rock punctuated by frenzied Yngwie Malmsteen style guitar shredding. Legendary.
Similar care care went into the story sequences and their English localization. Voice work in early TurboGrafx-CD games tended to range from slightly amateurish and goofy (Valis II) to brain-meltingly absurd (Last Alert). The Ys team wisely hired professional actors like Alan Oppenheimer and Thomas Haden Church, resulting in line readings that largely hold up today. If there’s one major weakness of the English dialogue, it’s the way every enemy character in the game is referred to as a “goon” by NPCs. It doesn’t matter if they’re talking about evil wizards, slime monsters, or the walking dead, they’re all a bunch of goons, apparently. Such an odd scripting choice.
I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that Ys is all flash, however. This is one exciting action RPG, primarily due to the one thing I expected to dislike most going in: The bump combat. That’s right, using Adol’s sword requires no button presses. Instead, he simply rams into foes to deal damage. There is a degree of skill involved, as touching monsters from the side or from behind will result in more damage for them and less (or none) for Adol. This was a common mechanic in old Japanese computer RPGs, although Western audiences mostly know and loathe it from the ill-fated NES port of T&E Soft’s Hydlide. The key difference is that while Hydlide is a slow, generally clunky little game, the fighting in Ys is impressively fast and smooth. Adol can really haul ass, and mowing down an entire line of baddies without missing a step feels amazing.
Ys’ take on bump combat is so superb, in fact, that it indirectly gives rise to the first of my two major complaints. The opening act of Book II introduces a magic system and grants Adol a projectile fireball attack with practically unlimited shots. Enemies in Book II tend to inflict huge damage if you misjudge the timing of your bump attacks. In effect, this heavily incentivizes you to forsake the awesome swordplay in favor of less satisfying fireball lobbing from that point on. Why would the designers want this? Beats me.
I was also let down by the final dungeons. They’re not bad per se, just ungodly long. The last dungeon in any RPG is almost always the longest and most challenging, of course, but Nihon Falcom really took it to the extreme here. You reach these areas (Darm Tower and Solomon Shrine) at around the halfway mark in each game. After that, you’re effectively done exploring the world. There are no new environments or towns awaiting you and little new art or music. Tracking and backtracking through the same set of corridors is all you have to look forward to for the next few hours. Perhaps this structure is a relic of the limited floppy disk space on ancient computers? In any case, it makes for some seriously lopsided pacing. It may even lower the replay value, depending on your tolerance for monotony.
Despite these few rough patches, I came away from Ys Book I & II with a profound appreciation for what makes it so beloved by fans on both sides of the Pacific. By setting a new audiovisual high water mark for home gaming as a whole, it managed to feel more like a bona fide fantasy epic than anything that came before. Thirty years on, it stands tall as a good-looking game filled with incredible music and brisk, addicting action. It was, is, and shall remain a highlight of the TurboGrafx-CD library.